As Plant Vogtle build continues, so do appeals to stop it

By Mary Landers – Savannah Morning News

The first of two new nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle near Waynesboro was supposed to open two years ago today, with the second following last year. Instead, what’s now the nation’s only new nuclear project grinds on, five years behind schedule and billions of dollars overbudget.

Construction continues at a pace of $91 million a month, with ratepayers largely on the hook for those costs. But the issue of who pays for Vogtle isn’t yet a done deal, with legal challenges pending, including one challenge brought to court by a former Georgia governor. And ethics watchdogs are examining the regulators, finding what they say are cozy relationships with the utility and slack record keeping.

Georgia regulators at the five-member Public Service Commission gave the troubled project the go-ahead after truncated hearings in the fall, formally issuing their decision in January. Georgia Power continues to report construction milestones at Vogtle.

“Just yesterday, we placed the 306-ton Unit 4 Reactor Vessel,” said spokesman John Kraft on Thursday. “Earlier this month, we announced the placement of 2,400 cubic yards of concrete for the Unit 4 ‘turbine tabletop.’”

In its latest monitoring report to the state, the company indicated productivity has improved at the site and direct construction work is tracking ahead of the plan to achieve the target in-service dates of November 2021 (Unit 3) and November 2022 (Unit 4). The project is now managed by Southern Nuclear, the nuclear operating subsidiary which operates the existing Vogtle units, with global construction firm Bechtel managing daily construction efforts. The project’s lead contractor was previously Westinghouse, which declared bankruptcy in the spring of 2017, precipitating the need to reexamine the project’s viability.

Appeals pending

While construction proceeds, two appeals have been filed. Both aim to force the regulators to re-examine their decision rather than to stop it outright.

In the first, the Southern Environmental Law Center filed on behalf of the Partnership for Southern Equity and Georgia Interfaith Power and Light in Fulton County Superior Court charging that the approval violates state law and the commission’s own rules, and that it favors Georgia Power shareholders over its customers. The panel should have examined such large changes to the project under an “amended certificate proceeding,” which would allow for a more thorough review, the filing argues.

Instead, it used the already scheduled six-month monitoring review and with little notice in December cut short even that process by 47 days. The PSC also waived its “ex-parte” rule that prohibits the commissioners from keeping private any discussions with the interested parties after the hearings conclude.

That rule provides for a fair hearing of the issues and can’t be waived, argued SELC senior attorney Kurt Ebersbach.

“The rule actually doesn’t say they can’t meet with GP under those circumstances, it says that if you do you have to let all the other parties know and give them an opportunity to respond,” Ebersbach said. “In a way it’s as if the proceeding continued but with just one party who also happens to be the most powerful party, who wants to continue its project.”

One apparent result of these behind closed doors negotiations didn’t sit well with Georgia Watch, which filed the second appeal. Executive Director Liz Coyle said the decision to allow Georgia Power to put unit 3′s costs into its rate base early – before the completion of the fourth unit as was planned all along – only came up at the last minute. Consumer advocates never had the opportunity to challenge it or even learn the economic effect on ratepayers.

“We all made our best case based on what had happened in the hearings and then Commissioner (Tim) Echols comes out with a motion that includes things that were never considered through any of the process,” Coyle said. “Those communications that happened behind closed doors without the benefit of evidence or cross-examination, that is what caused the unlevel playing field that resulted in a decision that is good for Georgia Power and its shareholders and really bad for consumers in Georgia.”

Former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes is representing Georgia Watch pro bono. The two appeals are expected to be folded into one case.

Vogtle’s estimated costs have nearly doubled for the project. The commission’s final decision approved a revised capital cost of $7.3 billion and financing costs of $3.4 billion for Georgia Power, which owns almost half of the project. Together, that’s a 75 percent increase over the original certified cost.

“The final decision allows Georgia Power to continue collecting profits and debt service financing from its customers for at least another five years, before the new units generate any electricity,” Georgia Watch’s petition states. “Georgia Power stands to reap more than $5 billion in added profit from the project delays.”

With appeals underway, individual regulators are reluctant to speak about the decision.

“Since this is under litigation, it would be improper for me to speak on it,” said Commissioner Doug Everett, who represents the PSC’s first district, which includes Savannah. Echols also declined, though he said the commission anticipates the appeals being resolved in about six months. Each of the five members of the PSC is elected statewide but resides in the district they nominally represent. All five current members are Republicans.

Commissioners serve staggered six-year terms; two seats are in play in the 2018 election. District 3′s incumbent Chuck Eaton has three Democratic challengers. They are Lindy Miller, John Noel, and Johnny White. District 5 Commissioner Tricia Pridemore is a PSC newbie, appointed to the seat by Gov. Nathan Deal in February after long-time Commissioner and Chair Stan Wise stepped down. She has a Republican challenger in John Hitchins III and two Democratic challengers, Dawn Randolph and Doug Stoner.

Petitioners filed their appeals against the Georgia PSC. But Georgia Power has intervened in the appeals and will participate as a party.

“We believe the decision by the Georgia PSC to continue the Vogtle project was well within its authority and complied with all applicable laws,” Georgia Power’s Kraft said.

In its response to the appeals, the PSC, represented by Attorney General Chris Carr, wrote the “findings and conclusions are supported by the evidence of record and should be affirmed.” Carr and the PSC legal team want to limit the court’s review of facts to the record of the PSC’s proceedings, noting that the PSC’s legal bar for a conclusive decision is low, requiring only “any evidence” to support it.

Ethics investigation

The public interest groups are eager to introduce evidence from outside the proceedings, including emails and text messages between commissioners and Georgia Power in the ex-parte communication. A hint of what they may find – and what may be missing – was revealed last month when the Energy and Policy Institute, a watchdog group, issued a memo about what it deemed Commissioner Tim Echols’ “preferential treatment” of Georgia Power.

In a radio show appearance before the Vogtle decision was made, Echols stated that a cancellation would result in a 6 percent rate increase for customers, with “nothing to show for it.”

Records obtained by the Institute showed that the assertion didn’t sit well with Tom Bond of the PSC staff.

“Bond immediately fired off an email to Echols wondering how he arrived at the 6 percent rate increase, since the PSC staff’s analysis had said that canceling the project would save ratepayers money,” wrote Daniel Tait, the Institute’s Research and Communication Manager, in the memo. “In a subsequent email, Echols admitted that he received the number from Georgia Power, not the PSC’s staff of experts tasked with doing that analysis on behalf of the Commission.”

Other records detailed Echols’ interactions with Georgia Powers staffers, from CEO Paul Bowers with whom he imagined the eventual ribbon cutting for Unit 3, complete with the “president of the United States holding the scissors,” to Savannah-based Communications Manager Swann Seiler, who he asked to appear as a guest on a local radio show he guest hosted.

“Can you come in and talk about raising dogs, the power grid and Georgia Power’s community service?” Echols emailed after the decision was made. Seiler was unable to appear but responded, “Thank you for your confidence in our company today.”

Additional documents requested by the Energy and Policy Institute may have been unavailable because of the deletion of messages by Echols, who stated that his PSC-paid Verizon cell phone auto-deletes text messages after 30 days.

Georgia Ethics Watchdog founder William Perry recently complained to the Attorney General’s office about Echols’ record-keeping, requesting an investigation.

“Commissioner Echols cannot be in compliance with the Georgia Open Records Act if the records are automatically deleted after 30 days without regard to content,” he wrote, noting that Georgia law requires officials to keep records for varying lengths of time depending on their content.

Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Colangelo replied that the office is unable to mediate complaints involving its clients or to conduct a public investigation.

“However, we will of course discuss this matter with the PSC and provide appropriate legal advice; that advice will remain confidential,” she wrote.

When the matter was brought to his attention, Echols reset his phone to retain text messages “forever,” sending Perry a screenshot to show he’d done it.

“Thanks for all you do, and your letter was effective,” Echols later texted to Perry. “Attorney just explained to all of us about retaining texts and proper policy.”

Copyright © 2018 Savannah Morning News

Source: Savannah Morning News